Third Person Female by Alicia Mietus
The fraught intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship form the core of ‘Third Person Female’, woven from the fabric of day-to-day life, shared cooking, childhood memories—and the differences of age and culture that flare up in the face of a new and unexpected relationship. Nikesh Shukla commented that, ‘This is a hugely engaging story. The complexity of the relationship between the mother and the daughter really sings.’
There are three things my mum and I have in common: The Breakfast Club, stubbornness and pâté.
I realise this in her kitchen the night before Easter Sunday, as I spread oil across a pan.
‘I’m having an Easter dinner’ she’d said on the phone. ‘You are my daughter. You must come. And dress like a lady.’
When I arrived, dressed like a human, she looked me over and told me a present was waiting on the bed. I unpeeled gold paper from the navy flowered wrap, searching for the receipt. I will never wear you, I thought and went downstairs.
Maybe it’s not even the pâté I like so much, I think, wiggling a finger under the cling film towards the crust. Maybe it’s just the story. A recipe handed across Europe between generations of Slavic hands, defying fascism and escaping communism before landing, silver plattered and singed at its final ‘-ism’ here in the British capital. Who could resist such a tale?
I’m breaking off a piece when she asks me, over the TV applause, how my relationship is going.
‘I dunno.’ I say between chews. The pâté is fatty and smooth. It contains no memory of the chunks of meat my mum ground down into a square. ‘Sometimes we feel close and then at other times….’ I swallow and take the lid off the babka cake on the counter. ‘What would you do to connect with a person?’ I ask ‘Like, to really get under their skin.’
‘Get them drunk,’ Mum calls across the open plan living room. ‘What I did with your Tata.’
I pick a dribble of icing off the cake; it’s sweet and grainy. The oil starts to spit so I take a half shell of faszerowane egg from a plate next to the hob. The diced, spiced innards look like brains packed into a tiny skull. I put it on the pan and it sizzles.
‘Is true,’ she says. The couple before her onscreen face the judges. ‘When he drunk he tell me everything.’
I met you one evening after months of swiping through a heap of lives condensed and sliced into rectangles. You liked Star Wars. That was a plus. Not that I liked Star Wars. I’d never seen it, actually, but you struck me as a nerd because of it and I thought yes, finally. One of my people. When I met you, you were not what I was expecting. Standing at the bar in your leather jacket, pint in hand, it was clear that you were not a geek. Not even a cool geek which I thought, back then, was the ultimate win. You were just cool and I had no idea how to handle you.
When I told you my favourite film was The Breakfast Club, you shook your head in despair.
‘What?!’ I said, ‘It’s a classic.’
That film has so many issues,’ you replied. ‘I mean for one thing there’s the obvious sexism—’
‘It’s a product of its time! It’s not fair to judge it by modern standards.’
‘—and,’ you continued, ‘the character development is piss poor. One minute the rebel guy is threatening Molly Ringwald and the next she’s throwing herself at his feet.’
‘Exactly!’ I said, noticing the tiny scar beneath your right eye, like a laughter crease kicked over. ‘That’s realistic. Attraction doesn’t obey rules.’
‘There’s ćwikła on the top shelf,’ Mum says. I find the magenta jar of relish and open the lid with a pop. ‘You take it with the pasztet tomorrow after the guests leave, when you go North.’
It’s been four months since I moved out, but she still can’t call the flat over the river my home. When she visited the ex-council four bed, she couldn’t stop mentioning the cold. Her house is twenty five degrees all year and my bare toes made her shudder.
‘You get sick.’ she said to them. ‘Is double glaze?’
She peered at the smudged white walls and asked me what I was eating (pizza and pasta, she supposed). I should come home for some proper food. And wasn’t I even going to decorate? I pointed at the poster above the couch. She looked unimpressed, my dog-eared ‘Café Terrace at Night’ version of homeliness falling squarely outside the porcelain ballerina parameters of her own.
‘Did you know one origin of the word lady is “maker of dough”’; I say, flicking a dollop of ćwikła onto the pâté. ‘And a possible origin of the word kobieta is female horse, or pigsty.’
‘Then you are true kobieta,’ says Mum. I pick up another egg and put it on the fire. A ballad starts up as couple number five take to the floor.
‘Oh come see!’ Mum says. ‘I like these ones.’
A woman in a white sparkling bodice drifts across the screen, feathers pouring from her hips.
‘Do you remember that film we watched, when I was sick, where the cool girl falls for the rebel?’ I ask.
‘No. Why? Oh, this man is so handsome.’
The woman’s lips are stained red and she smiles out at me like a doll.
‘They look like Barbie and Ken.’
‘And when will I meet your man?’ she asks, turning to look at me. I go back to the kitchen and stick a knife into the meat.
‘They’re pretty busy right now,’ I say.
The judges announce their verdicts; elegance, grace and poise. I pull out the knife and shove more pâté in my mouth. The ancient chair behind me creaks.
‘Why you keep using the word “they”?’ she asks. ‘Why don’t you just say “he”?’
The air thickens. My mind searches every cupboard for the right answer, behind every tin and outdated jar, but there are only two options and they’re both sour. I take a glass of water. It mixes with the meat in my mouth, but I gulp it, holding my breath against the taste. I turn to face her and see her bloodshot eyes reflecting the shiny couple spinning, spinning, spinning….
‘It’s a she.’ I say.
She recoils like I’ve fed her unwashed herring.
‘What you mean?’
‘It’s a she,’ I repeat.
The couple waltz across the screen in the background, moving across the parquet floor like a coin spun across a table, revolving heads and tails. My Mum’s eyes flick left and right, revolving around a pronoun.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘You are dating girls?’
‘Not plural. Just one.’
I absorb her distaste, curse my brain for slicing the ‘s’ off a ‘she’ and mincing it into a third person plural, for thinking I could fry it in forty five years of broken English and surely, surely mask the flavour of a singular female in the mass.
‘Are you ok?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I need to sleep on it’—as if a pillowful of my perversion could be any comfort.
When I was eighteen, I caught mononucleosis from one of the two boys I made out with at the uni bar. In the first week I missed my lectures. In the second I stopped leaving my bed. In the third week, Mum came down to halls to nurse me in that dirty English biosphere, surrounded by drunk teenagers I barely knew. She sat in my bed as I spat saliva into a tissue and let me put on The Breakfast Club. I was surprised by how much she liked it. It was relatable, she said, and it showed we all have problems.
‘Is it my fault?’ she asked when the credits rolled, leaning against a pillow as if we were flatmates having a movie night. I looked at her, breathing shallow.
‘Maybe it’s my fault,’ she said. ‘I had you so late.’
‘That’s not how glandular fever works,’ I croaked. ‘And thirty seven isn’t late.’
‘I don’t know where this come from,’ Mum says, pupils searching mine as scores are held up. ‘Why this happening at your age?’
I put my hand behind me to lean on the counter, but my elbow knocks the pan and it clangs to the floor. There’s something stuck on my palate. I stuff it down my throat with my tongue.
‘It’s early days,’ I say. ‘It might all fall apart. You could still end up with grand-kids, you know, the “normal” way…’
Oil drips from the pan into the cracks between the tiles and permeates into the foundations. I chase it with a kitchen towel, but can’t reach the guilt grinding its way through my stomach, twisting nausea up into an S- shape around my neck.
I abandon the kitchen towel and go to sit next to my mother. A new couple quickstep before us. He leads, she follows. Her pink skirt flutters, his black shirt glimmers. He turns her and she spins. I wish they would trip.
‘What will my friends think?’” Mum says, eyes glued to the screen.
‘That’s your main concern?’ I ask.
‘They are not your age. You need to be tolerant.’ The word spits across the living room and slides down the mirror above the mantelpiece, where a lacquered porcelain bunny grins at me.
‘You want me to be tolerant of your homophobic friends?’ I clarify.
‘Yes,’ she snaps. ‘I do not have time to make new friends. You know how they are.’
My Mum sips her tea; a small woman younger than her words sunken into the faded leather armchair in which she always sits. Her slippered feet rest majestically on a footstool.
‘I don’t want my friends to have ammunition against me.’
I picture Auntie Basia with war paint on her cheeks crouching in the hydrangeas, lobbing a grenade into the conservatory.
From the side table, John Paul II watches me from a postcard, sandwiched between my parents’ wedding day and my first holy communion. I stand between my grandparents packaged in white frills and topped with a veil; a Holy Trinity of Obedience, Piety and Hairspray.
‘You always want to eat your cake and have it.’ Mum says.
I laugh but resist the urge to point.
‘There so much choice these days,’ she says, as if choosing a gender is like selecting a brand of bleach. I get up and walk to the mirror, where coloured plastic eggs hang dismally from ribbons. She mutes the TV and the couple doesn’t object.
‘Is this how things are going to be now?’ she asks.
‘You tell me.’
The dancers start to jive in silence, holding hands and churning up the air as if they need to make space in it. I turn the porcelain bunny around to face the wall.
‘You break it,’ Mum says.
‘I’m tempted,’ I reply.
Instead I lace my fingers together and rub one thumb over the other.
‘You not too old for thumb rings?’ she says.
I take off a ring and flick it across the marble, imagining it’s the dancing couple, arms locked together whirring uncontrollably faces agasp into a sphere, no heads no tails just hollow, clicking off the mirror and falling off the edge into carpet oblivion.
‘I don’t see the point in jewellery,’ you said, lying next to me, lacing your fingers through mine.
‘It’s just a piece of shell,’ I replied, stroking the outline of your tattoo.
When I was eight my Dad was told to get me ready for a party. Mum had laid out the summer dress, blue and airy. He zipped up the back and I swished the skirt, feeling the softness brush my knees.
‘What’s this?’ he asked, rubbing an orange smudge on the collar. ‘It’s stained. You can’t wear it.’
I pleaded with him—no one would see it, no one would care—but Dad’s mind was made up.
‘I will not have those English people think my child has no clean clothes,’ he said, selecting a frilly shirt and tweed dress. ‘Now you will look elegant.’
‘I can’t wear that! Everyone will laugh!’I stamped my feet and cried but before long I was sat in the backseat of the Volvo, red faced and contained in tweed. Sure enough, at the party, girls in colourful skirts had run up to me and asked what on earth I was wearing.
‘My Dad made me,’ I said as they eyed me with pity.
When we got home I ran for my mum yelling ‘Look what he made me wear!’ I wrapped my arms around her stomach and she kissed my head.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Your Dad can be very stubborn.’
After the accident his stubbornness absorbed its way into us, diffusing out from his brown leather shoes and waterproof coat into the furniture and walls. Adamance silently drifted down the hallway from his flat cap, dissolving into the household fabrics until everything was pressed and smooth.
‘I’ve been thinking of going back to Poland,’ Mum says, taking her stained mug to the kitchen.
‘Why? You don’t know anyone there anymore.’
‘Eh,’ she shrugs. ‘Life’s cheaper there.’ She rinses the mug, turns off the tap and puts the mug out to dry with the other stained English sundries.
The coffee table blurs before me. The fake flowers start to spin in Mum’s fiftieth birthday vase until the bright colours turn to mush.
‘Did you ever consider how your actions could ruin my life?’
It’s my mother’s voice but I can’t see her, can’t find the woman my friends used to call ‘the coolest Mum.’ The couple stop dancing and give a bow to silent applause. Roses fall at their feet, red and white.
‘We talk tomorrow,’ Mum says, turns off the TV and walks upstairs.
I pick my ring up off the carpet and wipe tolerance off the mirror. There’s no need to turn out the light. I crouch over the sideboard and spin the ring again ‘til it dances from the Pope towards Grandpa, Grandpa to Mum, Mum to me, veiled, aged seven.
‘I need a restaurant recommendation. Somewhere central and not seafood,’ I ask.
‘Oh I see,’ says the Pope. ‘Who’s the lucky guy?’
The ring clicks off the picture and slows its dance before collapsing in a drunken cackle. I put it on my thumb, pluck a fake egg from the mirror and toss it into the air.I swish my wrist and the egg lifts off, ribbon spinning, drawing circles above my hand.
‘You’ll break it,’ says the mirror.
‘It’s connected,’ I reply.
That was what you said you were looking for, when I asked you, three pints into date number four, what you wanted in a relationship. You looked up to the ceiling, tapped your finger on your lips and said, ‘I want real communication. To feel connected to someone.’
We tumbled out of the pub and walked back to my flat, me bumping into you accidentally-on-purpose with every meander and grabbing your hand like an anchor in rough seas.
‘Look at the liiights!’ I slurred, looking over hedges into Georgian living rooms and Victorian kitchens. ‘I love peering into people’s lives.’
You pulled me back to safety.
‘See that?’ you said, pointing at a nice enough run-of-the mill semi. ‘That’s my future house.’
‘But it’s so normal!’ I said, sweeping my hand across the suburban tableau.
‘I like it,’ you shrugged.
‘Normal.’ I smiled. My eyes locked yours, and I weaved my arms around you, bracing against the swell.
‘It’s not normal.’ Mum says under her breath from the wedding photo. I catch the egg. Her golden hair cascades down her back, her white dress is sequined. She looks down and smiles, held safe in my Dad’s arms.
‘I’m going back to Poland,’ she says. I can’t see her eyes.
‘I’m going back to Poland.’ She says again.
My phone rings and I see your name on the screen but ignore it.
I go to the kitchen to clear up the mess. The plate of eggs is laid out, each shell stuffed and sealed in with breadcrumbs, a blob of mayonnaise in the centre of a porcelain chicken.
I pick up the plate, slide the eggs into the bin and scoop out the mayo. I dig my fingers into the babka cake feeling the icing crush under my nails. I squash the sponge until it’s a pulp, then brush my hands onto the floor where the crumbs sink into the oil.
Taking the knife, I approach the pâté, a piece missing where I’ve already sliced in. I consider stabbing it to mud but instead I open the fridge. My hands start to work, grabbing peppers and tomatoes. I fry onions and mushrooms and garlic, adding flour to the sauce. I don’t know what I’m making. Sweat greases my head and tears blur my vision. Steam fogs the window until eventually, a blur of light fades in.
When my mother appears, still in her nightie, I’m nursing a coffee.
‘What you do?’ she asks, squinting at the dawn catastrophe. ‘The kitchen is mess.’ She scans the flour on my jumper and the sauce on my sleeve but says nothing.
‘Where is the cake? And the eggs?!’
‘They’re gone,’ I say. ‘But there’s food in the pot.’
She walks over to inspect it.
‘How will I present this?’ she asks. ‘Everyone expects traditional Easter food! Pâté! Eggs!’
‘You can stick a porcelain bunny on it if you like,’ I suggest.
I think she might explode, but feel the heat reduce to a simmer.
‘What is it?’ she says, taking the lid off.
‘I don’t know. But it’s good.’
She takes a spoon out of the drawer and dips it in to the liquid. I wait, breath held, as she turns towards me. Her eyes are tired and stern but there’s something new in them, contained.
‘Needs salt.’ she declares, adjusting the tiny pink bow on her cleavage.
Alicia Mietus is a second-year Creative Writing MA student at Birkbeck University. She has read her work at MIRLive, the Mechanics Institute Review spoken word event, and current interests include the immigrant experience, cultural and generational clashes, feminism and identity. She is working towards a short story collection and also has interests in screen and play writing.
Illustration by Alaa Alsaraji